In the first issue of the excellent new magazine ‘The Monthly’, Mungo MacCallum surveyed the graveyard of dead journals he had worked for over a long career; many of them burning very brightly before succumbing to the lack of sustaining oxygen that seems to be an consequence of our small population, or our traditional anti-intellectualism, or maybe a combination of both. Still, titles like ‘Oz’ and ‘The National Times’, ‘The Nation Review’ and ‘The Independent Monthly’ did manage to make their telling impression before snuffing out.
On the basis of two good issues, I hope ‘The Monthly’ goes on to join those ranks and keeps its nostrils above the water line long enough to count. In the meantime though, us elitists have got to take our kicks where we can find them, and I’m here to tell you that a moist oasis has sprung from the pages of that august journal of record, the Australian Financial Review, whose pages are usually as dry as a nun’s nasty, economically speaking.
Yes, pilgrims, I’m talking of the ‘Re/view’ section, which appears on Fridays, nestled in those cold dead pages somewhere near the stock market report and the lifestyle section. Don’t be put off by the dated backslash in the middle of the word thing, which I think is some elderly sub-editor’s idea of funky and postmodern. It has enough substance across its twelve tabloid pages to keep most of us chewing through even the longest of long weekends.
It arrived with uncanny timing in my bored and disillusioned consciousness. I had recently given up the habit of my entire adulthood and ceased even trying with the ‘Saturday Age’, which has increased in weight and girth in exactly inverse proportion to its mass, if you see what I mean. I was beginning to suspect that Fairfax publishers had created a secret monopoly by buying up a huge share in paper recycling interests.
The only thing stopping ‘Re/view’ from getting more attention as a journal in its own right, is that the major part of its content is reprinted from other sources, with original pieces from Australian writers making up maybe a quarter of its column inches. What it does have, however, are delicious samples of truly excellent essay writing from journals like ‘New Statesman’, ‘Prospect’, ‘The New Yorker’, ‘Washington Post Book World’, and ‘The Atlantic Monthly.’
The topics covered can be literally anything from the secret maladies of Samuel Johnson, the nuclear industry’s PR campaign, Jean-Paul Sartre, art on television, Charles Bukowski, the acting of Robert Mitchum, Indonesian politics, the campaign to end poverty, classical music in America, and the idea of sin, just to name a few recent articles that caught my interest. There’s a lot more where that came from.
Its reach is wider then, than just about anything in this country. You will find more rigorous academic discourse elsewhere, more learned foreign policy comment, more penetrating literary criticism, but you will not find all of these things discussed in the one place, in such a liberal and unpretentious way, in a newspaper.
With my brain softened by acres of right-wing opinionizing in the rest of the Murdoch press, and the regurgitated press agent’s fluff dressed up as celebrity feature articles that accounts for most of the weekend papers, I was beginning to despair that good writing with a generalist, civilised spirit could be found in Australian newspapers.
Often I skim over articles that don’t appear to hold much interest, and find that I’m riveted by the first paragraph and continue reading despite myself. Every so often certain paragraphs ignite something in my head and I find myself compelled to go back over them again. Like this one. It’s in an article by Matthew Sweet on the history of Batman in the context of his latest manifestation at the movies, with a stunning digression on William Shatner’s acting style:
“The Batman I knew best was the television one: Adam West, a burly American leading man, straining inside a battleship-grey body stocking and leather bat mask. His body looked as corseted as William Shatner's. Indeed, he shared something of Shatner's peculiar acting style - quivery yet rhetorical, with a fast-slow-fast pace that made him sound like a man at a lectern attempting to prevent his big moment being ruined by an inconvenient orgasm.”
Damn, that’s funny.